Skip to: Content
Skip to: Site Navigation
Skip to: Search


Upstairs/Downstairs Evolution of American Culture

By Mary Warner MarienMary Warner Marien teaches in the Fine Arts Department at Syracuse University. / July 12, 1989



HIGHBROW/LOWBROW: THE EMERGENCE OF CULTURAL HIERARCHY IN AMERICA, by Lawrence W. Levine. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard. University Press. 306 pp. $25. WILLIAM SHAKESPEARE was the quintessential highbrow - not for what he wrote, but for how he was thought to have looked. In the 19th-century pseudo-science of phrenology, a high forehead denoted artistry and intelligence. Shakespeare, who was frequently portrayed with a broad brow that swooped halfway across his skull to a retreating hairline, appeared especially gifted.

Skip to next paragraph

Displaying the scantest of brows, apes defined the bottom of the phrenological continuum, which arrayed the world's races according to cranial dimensions. The highest brows were found among northern and western Europeans, not coincidentally phrenology's main customers.

By the end of the last century, the terms ``highbrow'' and ``lowbrow'' moved from phrenology and entered the language as a shorthand way of indicating intelligence and aesthetic sensitivity. Eventually, the words were applied to cultural categories: Opera is highbrow; photography is not.

We have become so accustomed to thinking in these terms that it comes as a surprise to learn that in America, strict hierarchical ranking of cultural expression has not always been the case.

Surveying the changing character of Shakespearean performance, opera presentation, band-music repertoire, symphonic music, and museum holdings, Lawrence W. Levine contends that the mid-19th century art experience was simultaneously popular and elite. Cultural spaces, like theaters and opera houses, were not rigidly divided. Patrons ranged over a broad socio-economic spectrum.

Moreover, programs were flexible and eclectic. In one evening, ``Hamlet'' might be followed by a bit of froth, like ``Love's Laughs at Locksmiths.'' At mid-century, opera companies routinely supplemented arias with popular tunes. In Boston, to celebrate the National Peace Jubilee of 1869, the program included excerpts from Rossini's ``Stabat Mater'' and Wagner's ``Tannh"auser,'' assorted patriotic songs, and a rendition of the Anvil Chorus from ``Il Trovatore,'' boasting 100 firemen beating anvils with sledgehammers.

Levine rejects the notion that being popular automatically means being aesthetically questionable or vulgar. He shrewdly inverts the familiar claim that popular culture is, and has always been, nothing but degraded, distorted, and diluted high culture. Instead, he portrays a yeasty and participatory mid-19th-century cultural life, in which distinctions between highbrow and lowbrow fare were seldom made.

Further, Levine insists that late 19th-century efforts to reform the arts, making them more exclusive and more difficult, directly aided a fragmentation of national spirit. What artistic purity might have been gained when audiences ceased booing, chattering, cheering, and whistling, cannot, in Levine's view, outweigh the loss of a shared public culture.

The dramatic late 19th-century assault on cultural pluralism and popular participation in the arts is best illustrated in Levine's discussion of symphonic music. At mid-century, ubiquitous bands were mixing Mendelssohn and Rossini with polkas and waltzes. But by 1881, and the establishment of the nation's first permanent symphonic orchestra in Boston, the idea of programming popular airs and dances with Beethoven was under full critical attack. The idea of public taste became a leading oxymoron among those who professed that the culture experience was necessarily exclusionary. The aura of sanctity descended, and culture came to be looked on as naturally restricting itself to rare persons of high-born sensibilities.

As culture became less democratic, a panoply of rituals was prescribed for its proper appreciation. Audiences in museums and concert halls were urged to observe reverential silence. The stuffed animals and other curios were removed to museum storage rooms lest they distract from the paintings and sculptures. House lights were dimmed during concerts to focus attention on the performers and to induce a passive, meditative atmosphere for the audience. Even the idea of applause was questioned: To paraphrase one commentator, people who would never dream of clapping after hearing a prayer, insist on banging their hands together after hearing Chopin.

Occasionally Levine's arguments weaken. One can be grateful to turn-of-the-century aesthetes for ridding the concert hall of cigars, peanuts, and raucous catcalls, while realizing the preposterousness of proposing that a musician is nothing short of a ``high priest in the temple of the beautiful.''

It is unfortunate that the epilogue to ``Highbrow/Lowbrow'' largely consists of perfunctory mudslinging at Allan Bloom's ``The Closing of the American Mind.'' After such an engaging historical account of the dynamics and subtexts of the American experience of culture, Levine seems to evade the implications of his study by succumbing to contemporary arguments about cultural quality: How many Duke Ellingtons does it take to make a Gustav Mahler?

But the public culture debate cannot be narrowed to a consideration of which works are more worthy. As Levine ably shows in his reflections on Shakespeare in America, cultural literacy has less to do with the putative quality of individual works of art than with the way a widely shared public culture provides the vocabulary that enables individuals to integrate national experience. Whatever its flaws, readers of ``Highbrow/Lowbrow'' will come away with a strengthened appreciation of the centrality of art and culture in American life.